After finishing university I set off travelling for 5 and a half weeks, visiting various places around Thailand before heading to Cairns, Australia. As a zoologist, my highlights of this trip were (unsurprisingly!) all animal-related. The most unusual animal I came across during my time abroad was the Cassowary (Scientific name: Casuarius casuarius) – an animal I had never heard of before. I wanted to better understand this colourful creature, why they came to be classified as ‘vulnerable’ and what we can do to help them.
I was lucky enough to see a cassowary in captivity, as shown in my photograph. Unfortunately, I didn’t see any wild birds as they are rare and difficult to spot in their habitat of dense rainforest – a common feature of the state of Queensland. The bird in this photograph is a Southern cassowary; the only species found in Australia. The two other living species, the Dwarf and the Northern cassowary, are found in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. As you can see, the cassowary is pretty unusual! They can grow to around 6 feet tall and are Australia’s heaviest bird – sounds scary and, believe me, they have a stare that looks straight into your soul! In fact, the males can be quite aggressive during the breeding season (May-November) as they look after the eggs and raise the chicks instead of the females. Chicks are generally brown and black with stripes – a far cry from their more colourful parents. The cassowary’s horn-like structure on its head is actually called a ‘casque’. Scientists believe it may have an acoustic function in terms of low-frequency sounds, while some suggest a more practical use as a kind of ‘helmet’ to prevent collisions when running through the rainforest.
In terms of its history, cassowaries have been mostly threatened by destruction of their rainforest habitat, such as building of roads that connect remote rainforest areas to big cities. They are also threatened by less frequent events such as car collisions, attacks by domestic animals such as dogs, and interacting with humans. Together, these factors led to their numbers decreasing very quickly. As a result, they have been classified as ‘vulnerable’ by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) since 1994 and ‘endangered’ by the Australian government in 1999. This is a particularly fast example of animal decline as just 6 years earlier, in 1988, they held the status of ‘least concern’.
The reduction in cassowary numbers is worrying as they are vital to the rainforest ecosystem. Cassowaries eat a range of big rainforest fruit, and of course, what goes in must come out! Because of this, they spread seeds around the rainforest so that new plants can grow. Recently, however, conservation programmes have been put in place to help increase cassowary numbers. Most of their remaining habitats are now within protected areas, and local residents and tourists are becoming better educated about how to help protect these birds. This includes never feeding cassowaries and driving carefully in known cassowary territories. Although cassowary populations still need a lot of help, these conservation strategies give hope for this mesmerising bird. In my opinion, both the Australian government and the relevant scientists should be commended for putting strategies in place for the cassowary before it was too late.
So, despite being mildly terrified by its angry stare when I came face to face with the infamous cassowary, I’m so grateful that I managed to see one of these striking but peculiar animals in real life. They really are something special and are yet another example of the amazing variety of animal life that we are privileged enough to share this planet with!
Naish, D. & Perron, R. M. (2014) Structure and function of the cassowary’s casque and its implications for cassowary history, biology and evolution. Historical Biology, doi: 10.1080/08912963.2014.985669
Mack, A. L. & Jones, J. (2003) Low-frequency vocalisations by cassowaries (Casuarius spp.). The Auk, 120: 1062-1068
Road sign: www.drivingtests.co.nz/resources/australian-animal-road-signs/